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Moral Sense Paperback – February 1, 1995


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 316 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (February 1, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0029354064
  • ISBN-13: 978-0029354063
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,560,917 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this age of self-gratification and widespread lawlessness, Wilson ( Thinking About Crime ) takes the unfashionable view that a moral sense is part of our basic nature, albeit one that competes with our narrowly defined self-interest. In this lucid, elegant, magisterial and controversial essay, the eminent social scientist, a public policy professor at UCLA, punctures the tenets of neo-Darwinian biologists, cultural relativists, Freudians, behaviorists and anthropologists. Social bonds, he argues, are not entirely a matter of convention or a tool to ensure perpetuation of the species. Instead, our moral faculties--sympathy, fairness, self-control, etc.--grow directly out of our mutual interdependence as social animals. Wilson believes that the moral sense is formed as the child's innate disposition interacts with earliest familial experiences. Self-restraints on appetites are built into the "primitive" limbic brain, he stresses. Perhaps his most controversial thesis is that men and women differ in their moral orientation, with men more inclined to emphasize justice and emotional control, while women stress sympathy, caring and cooperation. First serial to Commentary, Crisis, and Public Interest.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

The author, a political scientist, argues that human beings all share a "moral sense" rooted in human biology and evolution. Using data from anthropology, sociology, biology, and psychology, he argues that this "sense" does not consist of universal rules of conduct but rather of shared tendencies toward sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty. While Wilson shows that these tendencies can be shaped--or distorted--by cultural forces, they are strong enough to counter the postmodern tendency toward complete cultural relativism. The masterful synthesis of data from many disciplines (plus the fact that excerpts from this title are serialized in several leading current affairs journals like Commentary , Public Interest , and American Enterprise ) make this an essential title for any academic or public library serving an intellectural clientele.
- Mary Ann Hughes, Washington State Univ. Libs., Pullman
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

James Q. Wilson presents in this work a general theory which explains and justifies our 'moral sense'.
Shalom Freedman
He pulls from famous thinkers, medicine, socialogical and psychological studies creating a very comprehensive yet readable essay.
John Sturges
It is a pleasure to read the use of the unqualified words - obligation, duty, and conscience as part of the human sense.
R. Richard Schweitzer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

78 of 90 people found the following review helpful By Greg Nyquist VINE VOICE on June 5, 2001
Format: Paperback
Generally speaking, I have little use for books on morality. Anyone who needs to be given reasons in a book not to rape, rob or steal is someone not to be trusted. Books on morality, at best, are merely rationalizations of what all decent people believe anyway, and I fail to understand what is the point of that. But James Q. Wilson's "The Moral Sense" is a different kind of book on morality. Instead of trying to prove that murder is wrong or genocide evil, Wilson attempts to explain the origin of widespread beliefs concerning moral issues. His thesis is quite simple: morality, he argues, is based on human nature. In pursuing this goal, he makes no effort to state or justify moral rules, but seeks only to clarify what ordinary people mean when they speak about moral feelings and to explain the source of those feelings. Wilson regards this book as a continuation of the work begun by 18th century British philosophers, most notably David Hume and Adam Smith. He adds to this tradition a wealth of evidence from the biological and social sciences. The empirical examples Wilson has collected to illustrate his arguments are fascinating. "The Moral Sense" is not only the best book on morality written in the last fifty years, it also one of the best primers on the latest scientific evidence relating to human nature. For this alone, the book deserves high marks. It refutes the widely held notion that human nature is culturally malleable and that, with the right education and upbringing, the nature of man can be radically changed. Anyone who aspires to be educated and to understand what science has discovered about human beings needs to read this book. They will learn more about man and society from this book then all the text books they ever read in university courses in the social sciences.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By D. S. Heersink on August 12, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is an important book. If one has only one book to read on morality and ethics, I cannot recommend a better book than Wilson's "The Moral Sense." It's the first and, to my knowledge, the only, book that is a thoroughly modern, naturalistic, and intuitionist theory of ethics to date. The book begins with the challenge facing modern readers: Do we accept the total relativism of Rorty and other pragmatic academics who argue there is no moral sense whatsoever, or do we accept the polar opposite that only revealed religion or Kant's and Benthan's absolutist maxims give us a moral sense?

According to Wilson, both extremes are to be avoided by conciliating the theory of moral sentiments advanced by David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, and especially Adam Smith in the 18th century with the theory of evolution advanced by Charles Darwin a century later. Wilson arrives at a thoroughly modern conception of human nature and what it means to have a natural moral sense without prescriptive religion or deontological maxims to guide us. It is a wonderfully entertaining and highly thought provoking book to read on what can sometimes be a dull subject.

Obviously, modern moral developments have not all been positive. As Wilson observes, we've come to our senses about equality, fairness, and empathy towards others, but we may have left behind self-control and duty to others. I think he's absolutely on target. Unless and until we recognize that morality is not divinely-instituted, but rather empirically established by who we are by nature, and yes a Darwinian nature, then our moral sense will be always miss its target. All four: (1) Fairness, (2) empathy, (3) self-control, and (4) duty must operate concurrently for our morality to be balanced.
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26 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Ms Diva on March 8, 2002
Format: Paperback
I normally wouldn't give a book that is this slow such a high rating. Some of the chapters are longer than they need to be. Despite that, Wilson's argument is so interesting that it is worth struggling through some rather difficult writing to try to understand it.
Wilson is making a very conservative argument that argues that everyone is born with an innate moral sense, but that the family is key to socializing children to express that basic human nature. He uses extensive reference materials to back up his argument. In the end, I wasn't convinced that his thesis was correct, but he made me consider possibilities and arguments that I had not contemplated in the past. Some of his arguments about women were clearly sexist, and he didn't back it up in a way that made it seem like anything more than anti-feminist rhetoric. Overall, however, some of what he said did make sense. The book made me think, which a decent philosophical essay ought to do.
If you are willing to read a book you might not agree with, and you are interested in philosophy/morality, this book is worth the effort.
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Format: Paperback
Two major pieces of conventional - wisdom are undermined in the present work. The first is that we are all merely selfish creatures who act only out of considerations of our own self- interest. The second is that there is no objective morality and that no action can be taken to have a real moral value- but rather that all is simply ' relative'.
James Q. Wilson presents in this work a general theory which explains and justifies our 'moral sense'. He does this in part through his reading of eighteenth - century Enlightenment moralists, Adam Smith, Frances Hutcheson, David Hume but also through his reading of Darwinian evolution.
Primarily however he examines in ordinary clear language cases and examples from our everyday life and experience , and through them helps establish that the 'moral sense' is present in most of us.
He opens his work with a chapter on the Moral Sense, those dispositions which enable us to intuit what is right and wrong. He then considers four sentiments central to the Moral Sense- Sympathy, Fairness, Self- Control and Duty. In writing for instance of Sympathy he shows how this ability to feel for and understand others is a much approved and commendable quality. And how there are clear cases of Sympathy which cannot simply be classified as manipulations for self- interest. He considers too how Sympathy may inform heroic action, as in the most dramatic case of a soldier giving his life for his fellows.
Wilson discourses in his third section the Sources of the Moral Sense. His chapters here are 'Social Animals' ' Families' 'Gender' 'The Universal Aspiration'. He concentrates on how the close- ties within the family are one of the strong sources of Morality , and how those ties are extended to reach out to wider and wider parts of humanity.
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